American dreams

Greta Gerwig and Noah Baumbach on Mistress America

by Anne-Katrin Titze

Hitchcock/Truffaut director Kent Jones between Mistress America's Greta Gerwig and Noah Baumbach
Hitchcock/Truffaut director Kent Jones between Mistress America's Greta Gerwig and Noah Baumbach Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

How Robert Mitchum and a Twentieth Century Carole Lombard are the ones to copy, not Marlon Brando, the difference in shooting dance for Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly, Eric Rohmer framing, Brian De Palma in Venice, the rhythms of Whit Stillman and Todd Solondz, Frances Ha and the Sixties, the importance of physical choreography and working together to create the style, were a part of the post screening discussion between Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig with New York Film Festival Director and Selection Committee Chair, Kent Jones.

After the sneak preview screening of Mistress America, held at the Film Society of Lincoln Center last night, Kent proclaimed: "Before anything else - Happy Birthday, Alfred Hitchcock!"

Mistress America co-screenwriter and star Greta Gerwig:
Mistress America co-screenwriter and star Greta Gerwig: "As an actor my entry point is always through language." Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

Baumbach's wittily wonderful 21st century take on classic screwball comedies, co-written with Greta Gerwig, is a high-spirited coming-of-age trip. Tracy (Lola Kirke), a freshman at Barnard, meets Brooke (Gerwig) as she descends the red steps over the TKTS booth with a smile, parting the lumbering tourists, as if she were Georges Guétary building a "Stairway to Paradise" in Vincente Minnelli's An American In Paris. Brooke is a full-fledged, though anything but settled, character. "Her beauty", Tracy in voice-over tells us, "was that rare kind that makes you want to be more like yourself, not her."

Kirke's face registers everything as she puts two and two together - they have to go on a road trip to Greenwich, Connecticut, where Brooke's old nemesis and former best friend, Mamie Claire (Heather Lind), now lives. Mamie Claire, who in the past stole not only Brooke's wealthy boyfriend, Dylan (Michael Chernus, giving new meaning to a fleece vest), but also a lucrative T-shirt idea, plus her two cats, is likened to a "cashmere sweater from Old Navy" and needs to be confronted.

Kent Jones introduced Greta Gerwig and Noah Baumbach to the SRO crowd and began by asking "Where do you start with a character like Brooke?":

Greta Gerwig: Writing a character and playing a character are completely separate for me… We were working on something else and she was a minor character. The way we work is, we read things out loud to each other. Whenever I would read Brooke, we just laughed. She was just funny and crazy and she had so much going on…

Noah Baumbach on his documentary De Palma in the Venice Film Festival:
Noah Baumbach on his documentary De Palma in the Venice Film Festival: "I'm very excited about it. A film Jake Paltrow and I did together and Brian talking about his movies." Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

Noah Baumbach: I think it's somebody we kind of recognized… Also, it felt like someone out of movies. I think we almost were pursuing the human version and the kind of movie version for that character. Because Brooke in some ways is all performance anyway.

Kent Jones: That's part of who she is - she is a movie.

NB: Yeah, she is a movie. I think that felt intuitively right.

From the writing process to the performance:

GG: We don't change the lines at all once we're on set. And we don't adjust the lines for the people we cast. We cast them because they did the lines well. It does become like a piece of writing that feels pretty unchangeable. And then I'm like "Who wrote this garbage? I can't say this!"

NB: She is finding it in real-time and it's exciting. It's work an actor is doing anyway and she is doing it with material that she spent months perfecting… The physical choreography is so much part of it. The house [in Greenwich, Connecticut] is so much part of it. It's really also like finding, using those stairs. What we liked about this house was all these stairs. One floor looked down on the other floor. The script is all there ready to be interpreted but we're spending a lot of time getting the blocking right, the camera's blocking as well as the actors' blocking.

GG: As an actor my entry point is always through language. It's hard for me if I don't have a sense of a script having rhythm or an internal structure that makes sense to me…It almost feels like reading sheet music. If I can't hear it, it's very hard for me to actually act it.

Brooke (Greta Gerwig)descends the red steps over the TKTS booth:
Brooke (Greta Gerwig)descends the red steps over the TKTS booth: "She doesn't have a moment of 'oh, no, what have I done?' She just keeps going."

At this point Baumbach, whispering, prompts Gerwig to tell us about her audition experience.

GG: Oh yeah, when I was auditioning for things, when I was starting out. When I'd audition for TV and stuff, the casting director said: "It sounds like you're making fun of the material." And I said "I'm not!" … The scripts we've written together, the language is so important to us. The rhythm is all in it. I experienced that the first time I read Greenberg, which Noah wrote alone. I didn't have any part in writing it but I could hear it right away. I know what this is supposed to sound like. I had the privilege of working with some other directors who have a musical sense to their language. Whit Stillman [in Damsels in Distress] is like that. And I've worked with Todd Solondz [as Dawn Wiener in the upcoming Wiener-Dog] and he is like that.

Kent Jones inquires about the difference for Gerwig between Mistress America and Frances Ha.

GG: In a way it feels like they exist in totally different universes to me. Both take place in New York in the relative present but on some sort of spiritual level, they don't. Frances belongs to the early Sixties and this movie probably more belongs to the Eighties. It's hard to talk about characters without sounding like a douchey actor. But I am a douchey actor. Frances literally stumbled all the time. She had this kind of running, loping, falling pace to her. And Brooke, the way we dressed her, was also not really of this time. Like a misguided business woman with these little heels and her little boots and her pants that are a little bit too short. She just sort of stomped around and she would just keep stomping.

Greta Gerwig speaking with Brian De Palma and Tom Tykwer at Lincoln Center, 2012 New York Film Festival
Greta Gerwig speaking with Brian De Palma and Tom Tykwer at Lincoln Center, 2012 New York Film Festival Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

She has no shame register whereas Frances was constantly aware of doing things and being embarrassed about them. Brooke's character [saying] "Welcome to the Great White Way" - she starts this gesture, that she realises halfway down the stairs [over the TKTS booth], isn't big enough to cover the whole stairs, but then she has to keep going. She doesn't have a moment of "oh, no, what have I done?" She just keeps going. She's kind of a hair flipper. There's something hair-flippy about her… The main thing they share is almost a touch of madness. And I like that in characters… Films like Something Wild or After Hours, these movies where there's a slightly dangerous woman who drags a yuppie into her underground life - it's like Brooke kind of belongs to that.

On Introducing Brooke descending the red TKTS stairs in Times Square:

GG: I guess her real intro is her business-y voice mail message. It always made us laugh, the line about "Do you know where Times Square is?" And we also had this idea that Brooke lives in Times Square, which also made us laugh. As if it's like a neighborhood, you know, a regular neighborhood.

NB: Until we actually shot there. Getting radiation from those Two and a Half Men ads we had to watch repeatedly while cooped in Times Square.

Brooke with Tracy (Lola Kirke) framed Eric Rohmer style:
Brooke with Tracy (Lola Kirke) framed Eric Rohmer style: "He'd always put people sitting next to each other and then just shoot the conversation."

Baumbach's De Palma documentary will premiere at the Venice Film Festival.

NB: I'm very excited about it. A film Jake Paltrow and I did together and Brian talking about his movies. You'll be able to see it soon, I think.

Greta Gerwig on being compared to old movie stars:-

GG: It's not like I'm consciously trying to imitate something. The tip-top person that I love to watch is Carole Lombard. My voice is not like hers, my body is not like hers, but I think if you love something and you watch it enough, it kind of sinks inside you. I remember somebody told me very early on, if you're going to imitate, imitate old movie stars because nobody will know what you're doing. Every male actor would. like, imitate Brando. I was like, don't do that. Do Robert Mitchum or something. Nobody knows who that is! I did kind of take that to heart, but it's not so much a conscious thing.

I'm also influenced by how Noah shoots these movies. With both Frances Ha and this one, he shoots them the way that three or four pages of dialogue will play out in one shot. It allows me to give a performance that I think people would associate with an older style of acting, kind of bigger in a way and to have the whole frame to do it in. I don't like the way in movies conversations are shot a lot of the time. Going back and forth between the two people, I think it's boring at it also doesn't feel like life to me. I remember, we watched a bunch of Rohmer films and I think you [Baumbach] pointed it out. He'd always put people sitting next to each other and then just shoot the conversation.

Greta Gerwig and Noah Baumbach at the press conference for Frances Ha
Greta Gerwig and Noah Baumbach at the press conference for Frances Ha Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

NB: It's more European to sit next to each other…

GG: I hate being boxed in by a camera. I love dance. I started as a dancer. The way Fred Astaire always had everyone shoot him which was head to toe. That's how we see dancing. Gene Kelly got a different idea which was that you see his face more. I always felt I want to see the whole body. I still feel that way about acting.

Kent Jones: What is your favorite Carole Lombard movie?

GG: Twentieth Century with her and John Barrymore [directed by Howard Hawks]. She gets so pitchy when she screams and it by all accounts should be annoying but it's just amazing.

NB: [Ernst Lubitsch's] To Be Or Not To Be.

GG: Yeah, To Be Or Not To Be. "They call me…" Never mind.

Mistress America opens today in the US and the UK

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